Stephen Jay Gould was my favorite living science writer until he died in 2002. Officially, he was a Harvard professor of paleontology, but he was popularly known for his writings on science, evolution, and baseball (his personal passion).
He wrote essays for scientific journals that were periodically gathered together and published as books. The essay about the Hottentot Venus was my favorite.
Gould begins with a gentle poke at Carl Sagan. Sagan had written a book titled Broca’s Brain that he opens with a backstory of being in the basement of a French museum where he discovered a jar containing the preserved brain of Pierre Paul Broca, a 19th century French physician who studied the area of the brain still named for him.
Gould said Sagan should have looked on the shelf below where he would have found a similar jar far more interesting containing the genitalia of the Hottentot Venus. (Hottentot was an old Dutch term for the Khoikhoi tribe and is considered derogatory by some.)
Hottentot women are steatopygous, a scientific term for a specific type of fat distribution found in some African women that results in large butts with a characteristic shape, a style copied by today’s Nicki Minaj (and others). Actually, the results are often more than large—they can become stunningly huge, humongous, gargantuan. The butt extends out from the spine almost horizontally, forming a shelf that can safely carry a cup and saucer.
The Hottentot Venus was such a woman exhibited in a traveling freak show in early 1800s England. (For an extra charge, a visitor could even touch her butt.) Her real name (in Dutch) was Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, brought to England from South Africa by a ship’s surgeon. Her figure resembled the popular style of the bustle, and she quickly became famous. She died when only 26, some say of alcoholism.
(The bustle, women claimed, was only to lift the back of their long skirts so they would not drag on the ground.)
The Hottentot Venus appeared in her native costume that displayed her buttocks, but covered her genitalia that she always kept private. Rumors were that her loincloth hid a feature that was even more amazing than her buttocks. When she died, her genitalia were removed, preserved in a bell jar, and exhibited in a French museum. Then everyone knew.
It was amazing, just as rumored. Her inner labia hung down almost to her knees. It probably had been stretched with weights. Hottentot women were known to have large inner labia, but this was much even for them. The condition became known as the Hottentot apron, or, in French, a tablier. I don’t know about Nicki Minaj. I was unaware there was such a a condition, I kid you not, but I understand labia tucks are common cosmetic surgeries today.
By 2002, the old story of the Hottentot Venus was considered embarrassing and best forgotten. At the request of Nelson Mandela, her genitalia were returned to South Africa where they were quietly interred with her other remains.